Labor is now the government in Western Australia after an excruciating 8 years under one of the state’s most backwater governments at least in terms of impacts on the marginalised and most vulnerable. The poorest of the poor were neglected, stigmatised and many jailed. Labor is now government in five of Australia’s seven states and territories. But will they be any better in respect to the most vulnerable and the acutely poor? Will they invest in the assisting of people to repair broken lives, to avoid broken lives deteriorating to the ruined? Will they invest energies in transforming the lives of the incarcerated? One government after another has turned to the blind eye.
A government, outgoing, incoming, incumbent, should be defined by its efforts toward the most vulnerable. There is no greater legacy for any government than its hand in the improving the lot of the most vulnerable. Western Australia has the nation’s highest median wage but also the second highest jailing rate, the second highest suicide rate. When we disaggregate we find that Western Australia has the nation’s highest suicide rate for Aboriginal peoples, the nation’s highest jailing rate of Aboriginal peoples, a rate of racialised jailing only second to the jailing of African Americans.
Western Australia has among the nation’s worst homelessness toll and sadly alongside the Northern Territory the worst dirt-poor poverty levels in the nation.
Australia’s homelessness includes 18,000 children aged 12 years and less. I am writing about street homelessness. One in four of Australia’s homeless is made up of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. One in three of Australia’s homeless is made up of ‘migrants’ – of citizens born overseas. More than one in four of Australia’s suicide toll is accounted for by migrants, the majority newly arrived – and the majority whose first language is other than English. I have estimated in my research that this tragedy of migrant suicides will increase.
In the run-up to one election after another, there is the conditioning of eligible voters to prioritise issues that should be further down the list. Many of these are important but should not be regarded as the most pressing. Human life and dignity and equality should be the most pressing. Each change of government comes with a sense of excitement, energy and the suite of promises, but for me the success of the incumbent state and territory governments will be defined by what they have achieved for those who need the helping hand the most.
The numbers do matter and successes can only be authenticated by the overall numbers – because the numbers are people.
The new government of Western Australia, during its term, must significantly reduce the incarceration rate of Aboriginal people. Western Australia’s incarceration rate of Aboriginal adults is close to the world’s highest jailing rate (that of African American adults). That Western Australia owns a jailing rate of 3,745 per 100,000 Aboriginal adults is an abomination. This statistic is a human narrative, one of misery and suffering but it can be changed. Let us see if the new government will change it.
Same goes for the Northern Territory and South Australian governments who also own horrible narratives of racialised incarceration.
Every state and territory government during the last quarter century has failed to reduce incarceration levels, failed to reduce offending, failed to transform the lives of the most vulnerable. Unless governments respond then nothing will have been learned from the Don Dale royal commission. During this quarter century stretch every state and territory has increased its prison population – increased its sentencing rates. During the last quarter century the national prison population has increased by 150 per cent. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders today comprise nearly 30 per cent of the national prison population and by 2025 will comprise one in two of prisoners. In 2002, the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders was a horrifically high 1,262 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults. Today it is nearing 2,400 per 100,000.
Labor, as do the Greens, sell itself as focused on the marginalised, that they are about high minimum standards, that they do not give up on troubled people. But for too long, like the Liberals, they have neglected those who need help the most. The national prison population is nearly 40,000. More than 85 per cent of inmates have not completed Year 12 while 60 per cent had not got past Year 10. More than half were not in any paid employment prior to their arrest, while half had been homeless when arrested.
Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland are experiencing a sad phenomenon where their prison populations are comprised of increasing proportions of females – 10 per cent.
Art programs alone and some recreation in correctional facilities will not transform the lives of the majority in the significant ways that matter. The prison experience is one of dank concrete cells, of isolation, of a constancy of trauma and anxieties, of the entrenching depression and for many a degeneration to aggressive complex traumas. Australian prisons are not settings for healing, trauma recovery, restorative therapies, wellbeing, educational opportunities and positive future building. Only governments can change this.
There are 10, 11 and 12 year olds in Juvenile Detention facilities – child prisons – and the situational trauma of incarcerations should not be allowed to degenerate these children into serious psychological hits. These are critically at-risk children who need support and not the rod. The majority of the children will respond to the helping hand.
Governments must live or die by the numbers. Numbers do speak, they are telling. In NSW, 48 per cent of adult prisoners released during 2013 returned to prison within two years. In Victoria, 44 per cent returned within two years. In Queensland it was 41 per cent. In Western Australia it was 36 per cent. In South Australia it was 38 per cent. In the ACT it was 39 per cent and in Tasmania it was 40 per cent. In the Northern Territory it was 58 per cent. Prisons are administered by the states and territories and therefore the onus for change rests with the states and territories.